In your right hand is a glass of mezcal and in your eyes a pastel-crush sunset spanning the horizon. From a rose-tinted adobe street below the balcony drift the cries of “Burn him!” It’s September in Santa Fe, time for Zozobra, a home-grown festival when the city takes a day (and the next morning) off to burn a fifty-foot-tall marionette known as Old Man Gloom. Seem strange? Well, Santa Fe is called The City Different for myriad reasons.
For a concentrated Santa Fe experience, reserve a room at La Fonda. An exemplar of Santa Fe style, the historic hotel is adjacent to both the plaza—the square at the heart of Santa Fe’s compact downtown—and the Romanesque cathedral which dominates the city’s intimate skyline. (Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop is recommended reading). Large paintings by Gerald Cassidy hang throughout the hotel. A boldly painted Kit Carson eyes your margarita from a pillar in the lobby. The art rotates, so be sure to ask the concierge where the portrait of Shalako (The Giant Messenger) currently hangs.
At dinnertime, grab yourself a true New Mexican meal. Walk one block to The Shed, order a Silver Spur margarita with a mezcal float, and follow with a plate of blue corn enchiladas. If there’s a wait (there will be) step outside to Cathedral Park, where the Museo del Prado in Madrid has a traveling exhibit of 92 full-scale reproductions from their collection of masterpieces on display through October.
After dinner, drinks. Chris Milligan, the Santa Fe barman, serves signature garden-to-glass cocktails inside the St. Francis hotel. Fire and Hops gastropub has delicious modern pub food and a strong rotation of beers featuring many of the local breweries that have been medaling at the national level for years now. Order an IPA from Bosque Brewing to see what the fuss is about. Bar Alto in the
Drury Hotel is the best rooftop bar from which to ogle the stunning New Mexico sunsets while sipping a Paloma.
If you’re more of a rambler and less of a shopper, The El Rey Inn is a funky, more offbeat accommodation, and a relic of the original Route 66, which ran through Santa Fe. Their street sign recently read “ADJACENT ADJACENT ADJACENT TO THE PLAZA,” playing off the promise offered by every room-for-rent outside of walking distance to the bustle of downtown. Rooms at the El Rey are spread out over five leafy acres. Ample canopy and a glittering pool promise plenty of hiding spots to zone out for a bit. Get breakfast next door at The Pantry, a local legend that’s been serving gloriously spicy New Mexican food since 1948.
New Mexico’s state question is “red or green?” referring to the distinctive chile sauce that smothers many dishes. You’ll want to reply “Christmas” and try both on your plate of Buenas Dias. Across the busy lanes of Cerrillos Road lies Bodega Prime, a newcomer to Santa Fe’s crowded culinary scene. New or not, Chef Noela Figueroa and her small team are cranking out some of the best and most innovative food in town. Anyone for peach-brined pork belly over soft grits with snap pea-and-green bean succotash and poached eggs? Yes please!
Nestled in the Sangre de Cristo mountains, Santa Fe, the oldest capital city in the United States, offers plenty of opportunities to escape civilization entirely. At 7,200 feet above sea level, you’ll find all the alpine activities you could ask for, with world-class rafting, hiking, mountain biking, fly fishing and rock climbing in mountains that stretch north to Taos. During the snowless months, Ski Santa Fe has a mountaintop disc golf course, and they run their ski lifts during the peak of the aspens’ color change.
To experience the cultural heritage of the area, head outside of town to one of the eight Northern Indian pueblos along the Rio Grande. Pueblo Feast Days are often centered around traditional dances, and being in the presence of such an intense living tradition is a powerful experience.
If an art walk is what you require, visit Canyon Road, a concentrated collection of world-class art galleries. Santa Fe is the country’s third largest art market, and excellent restaurants are interspersed with shops that line both sides of the pedestrian friendly street.
Canyon Road ends at the Randall Davey Audubon Center, which hosts guided bird tours on its 135-acre grounds. If you need an escape from your vacation, the artist collective Meow Wolf has built The House of Eternal Return, a kind of inter-dimensional fun house and interactive art installation that is unlike anything Santa Fe has seen before. And that’s saying something.
Chimayo If Santa Fe somehow doesn’t give you an intense enough distillation of folk art and New Mexican culture, take a day trip to Chimayo and visit the Sanctuario, a sacred pilgrimage site for Catholics and a living work of folk art, with beautiful large retablos by some of the most famous 19th century artists of the old Spanish Colonial style. You can follow your visit with lunch at Rancho de Chimayo; if you’re anything like me, you will also want to take this opportunity to spend a few dollars on a bag (or 5) of the best red chile powder in the world, on sale in every gift shop in the area. If you need even more folk art, there are plenty of artists to visit on the High Road up to Taos. Centinela Traditional Arts, for instance, is the studio and gallery of the Trujillos, perennial favorite weavers in Santa Fe’s Spanish Market; their work is absolutely stunning, and it is a very short drive from Chimayo.